Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate the motion brought forward by the hon. member for Vancouver East.
Debate on the hon. member's motion is timely. Today the Minister of Human Resources Development tabled the government's response to the first report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. The response is entitled “Ensuring Opportunities: Access to Post-Secondary Education”. It is a comprehensive document. It addresses among other things many of the recommendations presented by the standing committee in its report last December.
The standing committee's report provided the government with very helpful advice. I am pleased that many of the committee's recommendations were incorporated and included in our February budget. We are now in the process of working on their implementation.
The Canada student loans program is a model of federal, provincial and territorial partnership. We have been successful in reaching a consensus on the Canada student loans program policy through the diligent work of all stakeholders.
I have had personal experience since 1993 in helping many of the officials, as well as successive ministers on this really important issue, having travelled throughout the whole of Canada to every province and territory to engage students and their advocates, as well as some of their instructors and officials from institutions of higher learning.
Last November the first ever national stakeholders working session on student financial assistance brought together representatives of student groups, educational institutions, banks and credit unions, as well as representatives from the provinces and territories. Working together we identified priorities and followed up with changes in the February 1998 budget.
We are continuing the process of improving the Canada student loans program by pursuing harmonization, which students, financial institutions and provinces have told us is a priority for them, working toward a single loan under the one student/one loan concept. Under this concept a student would receive one loan, rather than a separate loan from the federal government and another from the provincial or territorial government as the system stands now.
The discussions surrounding harmonization are continuing to progress. The hon. member will be pleased to know that this single loan proposal will improve access to the Canada student loans program, provide better service to Canadian students, simplify administration, make communication with borrowers more effective and avoid duplication and overlap.
If the hon. member would like more details on this proposal I would invite her to pick up a copy of Ensuring Opportunities . In fact, I will deliver one to her.
In the meantime the February budget has enabled us to improve the Canada student loans program so we can offer further help to individuals who are encountering difficulties in repaying their student loans.
It has become apparent through consultations that income contingent repayment is not supported by most stakeholders. They prefer other options to help students manage debt. Reforms to the Canada student loans program include: tax relief for interest on student loans, interest relief extended to more graduates, an extended repayment period for those who need it, an extended interest relief period for individuals who continue to face financial difficulty, and a reduction in the loan principal for individuals who still face financial difficulty.
Under the Canadian opportunities strategy we are expanding by 9% family income thresholds that determine interest relief eligibility. This will enable some 50,000 more borrowers to become eligible for the program.
As well, we are making interest relief available for a maximum of 30 months over the life of the loan, not just within the first five years of repayment. Beginning in 1999 interest relief will become graduated.
There is also our debt reduction and repayment initiative under the Canadian opportunities strategy. Effective this year the Government of Canada will, in some circumstances, reduce the principal of a borrower's loan to make payments more affordable. The principal will be reduced if the borrower's annual payments exceed, on average, 15% of the individual's income.
With respect to the implementation of the federal student grant program, the hon. member for Vancouver East proposes that the government implement a federal student grant program. The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation will be awarding 100,000 scholarships every year for 10 years beginning in the year 2000.
These scholarships will average $3,000 each and will help hundreds of thousands of low to middle income students of all ages. It is very comprehensive, very accessible and very flexible. It reaches not just those in university, but also those who wish to go to technical institutes or trade schools. It also has a high mobility factor. Students do not have to study in the province in which they reside. Students will be able to study almost anywhere in Canada. This is the way we engender and create a bit of tolerance and understanding; an accepting of other cultures, geography and other ways of life.
Students studying full time or part time in publicly funded colleges, universities, community colleges, vocational and technical institutes, and CEGEPs will be eligible to apply. This is not necessarily the case now. Ensuring Opportunities reiterates the government's commitment to grants as presented in the Canadian opportunities strategy.
The government has responded to that recommendation through the Canadian opportunities strategy. Beginning this August an annual Canada study grant of up to $3,000 will be available to full and part time Canada student loan program recipients with dependants.
The grant will provide non-repayable aid to over 25,000 high-need students with dependants. This is extremely important as it will enable these individuals to continue their post-secondary education.
We are now providing a Canada education savings grant. This grant will give families an even greater incentive to save for their children's education through registered education savings plans. The grant will pay 20% on the first $2,000 in annual contributions for children up to age 18.
The last part of the hon. member's motion calls for establishing accessibility as a new national standard.
Accessibility is the fundamental principle of the Canada student loans program. It is the driving force behind the program and fundamental to the success of the Canada student loans program since its inception in 1964. However, the standing committee recommended that the government work with its provincial and territorial partners to ensure access, fairness and predictability in any upcoming changes.
The hon. member will be pleased to know that Ensuring Opportunities states “Harmonization discussions with the provinces will be based on a series of mutually agreed principles, including those of access and fairness and, to the extent possible, predictability”.
This is the direction in which we are moving. The legislative authority already exists under section 18 of the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act. It authorizes the minister, with the approval of the governor in council, to enter into agreements with the provinces to harmonize student loans.
But to address any fears that the Government of Canada's jurisdiction might be undermined, hon. members should note that, other than fee for service arrangements, harmonization agreements will not transfer responsibilities or resources to provincial or territorial governments.
For the reasons I have outlined, I cannot support the hon. member's motion. I encourage her and other hon. members to read Ensuring Opportunities . It is a well thought out response to the recommendations of the standing committee. In collaboration with our provincial and territorial partners we will move forward to implement its provisions.
The Government of Canada's commitment to post-secondary education and all its various provisions, grants and loan programs is a very real one. We understand the plight of the single mother with dependants who has taken on the opportunity of furthering her education. We also understand the opportunities for persons with disabilities who want to develop some labour force attachment and higher education. We understand that.
We understand that it is not a one size fits all program that we are proposing. What we are proposing is a program to deal with the real world. There are many complications, many different series of events and circumstances that have to be addressed and we feel these measures have done that. In some way they have reached those people who are most in need.